American culture is obsessed with sex and violence, so much so that we often overlook the obvious when assessing films, television, music and even books! We tend to atomize cultural production and make a checklist of good versus evil instead of assessing works based upon aesthetic contribution.
The ratings systems comprise the main example of viewing cultural productions as first and foremost series of parts, of scenes of nudity, sex, or violence, and then demonizing these taken as parts, without viewing them in relation to the work as a whole. The ratings are literally applied to movies (PG-13, R, etc.), TV (TV-M, TV-G etc.), and music in similar fashions, as if they’re objective.
Works are Wholes
A movie (or piece of music, book etc.) is not merely a series of unrelated clips, rather it’s a whole (even if the whole depicts the disjointedness of contemporary life). As such, to judge a movie based upon its parts, without looking at each part’s relation to the whole, is to miss the boat. Imagine doing this with a Pointillist painting (the kind made from dots that must be viewed from a distance in order to perceive the “big picture”).
Sex and Violence Can be Well Done
The wildest, rawest sex scene or the most disturbing violence need not be objectionable in and of itself, and can be “well done” as it relates to an entire production. For instance, if a character is being fleshed out and flesh is a great part of that character, a sex scene involving unequivocal “animal sex” may be just what the doctor ordered as part of character development.
Similarly, if for instance a war is being depicted, little else does more harm to the depiction of war than does sanitizing it. It’s likely the case that a war movie that the ratings system favors for its lack of graphic violence may be worse not only aesthetically, but also ethically, in terms of its diluting the horrors of war. The movie may play up the “good parts” of war like romance or glory or just general special effects explosions sans concrete human repercussions.
Atomizing Works is a Form of Violence Itself
Now some of you may be saying that the ratings system is a way to help parents guide their children and that adults don’t use it as personal guide. Ideally this might be true, but it hardly works that way.
By tearing apart works, atomizing them and holding them up to censor-like checklists, we send a reactionary message that instead of challenging the status quo, art is to adhere to it and ultimately to endorse it. Part of the role of art is to challenge paradigms, yet the ratings systems themselves impose paradigms! Through this imposition of checklists, the film, for instance, is judged based upon some set of morals that usurps aesthetic judgment. In this regard, violence is done to the work itself because it’s evaluated based upon a very static and preconceived notion of what is acceptable and what isn’t.
The main watchwords of movie ratings include things such as sex, violence and vulgarity. Now vulgarity has assumed a form of meaning things like swear words or maybe nudity, but the word really just means “common” or “base.” In this more basic sense of vulgarity, the vast majority of movies and TV are vulgar even if they’re not labeled as such.
So that while something such as one of those shows that’s based upon home movies of pets and blunders may be vulgar to the core, it’s judged to be just fine because it doesn’t contain sex, nudity, coarse language or violence. So paradoxically, what we end up doing is elevating the vulgar even though ostensibly the vulgar is supposed to be a bad category.
All of this valuing of the “unobjectionable” does violence by tacitly suggesting that the depiction of the unobjectionable in life is more worthy than is the depiction of the objectionable. This has a tendency to mask harsh realities that demand change by way of propagating the myth that “all is well in the world”.
Conclusion: Aesthetic Obtuseness
By atomizing cultural productions, by labeling “bad parts” irrespective of wholes, and by making the overall vulgar more acceptable than the “vulgar scene,” we’re doing ourselves a tremendous injustice. When we judge art based upon a paradigm that the art itself may be challenging, when we elevate the diluted and antiseptic while lowering the intense and bold, we’re endorsing cultural vacuousness, aesthetic obtuseness, the status quo, and overall a vision that smacks of “Brave New World” or “Nineteen Eighty-four” inasmuch as words are made scarce and things become anesthetic through being made antiseptic.
The word “aesthetic” means something closer to “feeling” than we may normally think (to see this better, think of its opposite–anesthetic). So a ratings system that is made out to trump all because it’s supposedly aiming to protect all, may in fact be doing the opposite. To atomize art and to evaluate it based upon checklists is to downplay its ability to challenge and to move. To sterilize sex, war and violence is to lie about it and thus to desensitize us.